Tom Sutcliffe: Comic aspects to Iran's new toys
That there were comic aspects to the recent unveiling of Tehran's latest long-range weapon – an unmanned drone called "The Striker" – is surely undeniable.
There was, for one thing, the odd disjunction in the presidential rhetoric, with President Ahmadinejad insisting that his cruise missile had a "main message of peace and friendship" while simultaneously claiming that it was an "ambassador of death". One hopes that radar will be able to discriminate between its approach in friendly messenger or murderous ambassador mode. Then there was the fabulously amateurish nature of the stage setting from which he made his announcement, with its wrinkled backdrop and its lumpy am-dram cardboard clouds, propped in the foreground to conceal the rigging that was holding the weapon up. Even the thing itself looked a little risible – a garage-built Thunderbird scattered with rose-petals. It was all very mouse-that-roared.
How entertaining you find this joke depends, of course, on how close you live to Iran. It probably loses quite a bit of its comedy anywhere within the 620-mile range of "The Striker". And even outside that radius there are a lot of people who haven't been able to see the funny side for a long time – both in Israel and in Iran's increasingly nervous Arab neighbours. It isn't "The Striker" that has got them nervous though – but Iran's much-debated nuclear ambitions (entirely peaceful, according to the official line from Tehran, potentially apocalyptic if you're looking on from Tel Aviv or a nearby Arab state). You can hardly blame them for losing their sense of humour – given some of Ahmadinejad's recent statements. In June of this year he described how the Western powers founded Israel by gathering "the filthiest, most criminal people, who only appear to be human, from all corners of the world". Oh, you can't take that kind of thing seriously, say some analysts. If you don't take that kind of thing seriously, others argue, you may not get a chance to regret your mistake.
In a fascinating article in this month's Atlantic Monthly, Jeffrey Goldberg weighs up the probability of an Israeli pre-emptive strike against Iran within the next year or so – concluding that it is (narrowly) more likely than not. His piece set off a lively online debate in which there was no shortage of dissenting voices. The consequences would be too catastrophic, argue some. Sanctions will work, say others. But in all cases the teetering crux seems to rest on a judgement about whether Tehran's bellicosity is faintly ridiculous or in deadly earnest. Are the dark clouds cardboard flats, or the real thing?
Goldberg suggests (not explicitly) that there's a Catch 22 in play, too; if Israel becomes convinced that Obama would attack, then they might hold off, but the only thing that would truly convince them would be an attack. And while the Americans have a lot of powerful incentives for taking an optimistic assessment of Iran's progress towards achieving a nuclear weapon (because attacking is the very last thing they actually want to do), Israel has one overwhelming incentive for being defensively pessimistic – since many of them believe that being over-optimistic might be the last mistake the country gets to make. And all this is further clouded by diplomatic hypocrisy, with countries which would dearly love to see Tehran's nuclear facilities bombed back to square one publicly declaring that any such course of action would be unconscionable (if it does happen, listen for the loud sigh of relief behind the mutter of condemnation). It's almost impossible to say with certainty what's the right thing to do next, but treating Ahmadinejad as a joke – however tempting it might be – isn't it.